By Kathleen Bisbikis, National 2nd Vice President, National Legislative Rep, BLET Auxiliary

I hope this last legislative report of 2015 finds everyone home, safe and happy for the Christmas holiday, and brings a New Year filled with friends, family and wonderful memories yet to be made. If you have information you would like to share with me for future updates, please send it to me at bletauxilliarylr@gmail.com.

FAST ACT (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act) HR 22

On December 4, 2015, President Obama signed into law HR 22, Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. HR 22 will provide $281 million dollars for long-term funding for the country’s highways, mass transit and rail systems over a five-year time frame. The bill authorizes funding for Amtrak, providing $1.45 billion for Amtrak in 2016, increasing to $1.8 billion by 2020. In addition, the bill includes $199 million for funding of commuter railroads to install positive train control technology. FAST ACT also restricts the use of DOT-111 tank cars for transporting flammable liquids and strengthens tank car standards. The bill includes an increase in the thermal blanket protection for tank cars and also requires top fitting protection on tank car retrofits. In addition, HR 22 includes the following rail related items:

  • Amtrak funding under a new Northeast Corridor account and a separate National Network program, with total funding for both programs set at $1.45 billion in 2016, rising to $1.8 billion by 2020. Also, competitors would be allowed to operate up to three Amtrak long-distance lines if they could do so at less cost to taxpayers;
  • the creation of private-sector opportunities to invest in passenger-rail stations and right-of-way development;
  • passenger and commuter-rail safety, track, and bridge safety measures;
  • reforms to the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan program;
  • a consolidation of rail grant programs for passenger, freight, and other rail activities; and
  • the creation of a federal-state partnership for a state-of-good-repair grant program.

Ohio Fights Back On Right To Work Bill

Right to Work has shown back up in the state of Ohio. Overturned once already in 2011 by voters in the Buckeye state, Republican Representative Tom Brinkman is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit requiring employees of private companies to pay union dues for the wages and benefits bargained on their behalf, and for the representation they receive. Brinkman said that the legislation is necessary because Ohio is losing private sector jobs to other states that currently have Right to Work laws. Brinkman said many union members get what he calls, “shoddy service.” He said there is no reason Ohioans who do not want to join unions should be required to pay the fair share amount they currently do under Ohio law. But Democratic State Representative Michele LePore-Hagan told Brinkman there’s a big difference between paying dues to the YMCA and a union. Ohio union members showed up in such large numbers to voice their opinions at the hearing on December 1st that they were overflowed into two other rooms in the statehouse. The current hearing would only affect employees who work for private sector companies; however, as stated by Terry Holland, a state prison worker: “Public unions will fight this bill too. We know that when they get their foot in the door, we are next again.”

Railroad Retirement Tier I & II for 2016

The Railroad Retirement Board has announced that the Tier I and Tier II payroll taxes for covered railroad employees will remain the same going into 2016. Tier I will continue at 7.65 percent. That amount is divided into 6.20 percent for retirement and 1.45 percent for Medicare hospital insurance. The maximum amount of earning subject to the 6.20 percent contribution for 2016 remains at $118,500. There is no maximum for the 1.45 percent Medicare tax.

Tier II tax will also remain at its 2015 rate of 4.9 percent for employees. The maximum amount of earnings subject to the 4.9 percent tax continues to be $88,200.

Amtrak CEO/President Announces Retirement

Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman has notified the Board of Directors that he will be retiring from his current position as of September 2016. Mr. Boardman has served as the Amtrak CEO/President for the last 8 years. In a letter to Amtrak employees, Boardman said, “When I look back at this time I see so many accomplishments and so many changes we made to make America’s railroad a stronger, safer, and more important part of our nation’s transportation system.”

Durango Christmas Tree Train

The Durango and Silverton narrow gauge steam train and the National Forest Service have teamed up this year for the first time to help families find the perfect Christmas tree in the San Juan National Forest, in the southwestern corner of Colorado. The program not only allows families to take a ride on a coal fired, steam powered train dating back to 1882, but also helps in forest management. The National Forest Service has identified areas adjacent to the tracks that are badly in need of thinning to prevent fuel for any potential fires. Families going out to spend the day on the train will be able to buy a permit for $8.00 and be able to cut down their own White Fir tree to take home with them on the train. Volunteers are on hand to help with saws and guidance on how to safely cut down the trees, as well as serving up lots of hot chocolate.